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Arts & Life

Woster: Another hard change comes to the state’s largest newspaper

Screenshot 2021-11-08 113045.jpg
Argus Leader Media

It makes sense, of course, in this time of declined and declining revenues, for the owners of newspapers to find ways to save.

They’ve found lots of them, including reduced staff, reduced travel, reduced paper-product (a strange term for what was once simply “the newspaper”) delivery days and the selling off or renting of facilities that were once part of the thriving news operation.

I’ve watched it happen at both the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the Rapid City Journal, where I worked, between the two papers, for more than 30 years. I was deeply saddened a few years back when part of the Rapid City Journal building down on Main Street became a hair salon. I was further depressed to go upstairs to the old newsroom one day about that time to see that most of it was dark, unused, dusty — melancholy remnants of what once was and then wasn’t. Now isn’t.

And I was further dispirited to drive past the Journal one evening right after dark and see the windows all dark at a time when the newsroom would have been alive with people and energy and deadline pressure.

Change is hard, even when necessary. Was this all necessary? I’m not sure. I’d like to think there was a way for newspapers to respond to the coming of the internet and adapt better than they did. I’m not sure.

But this latest news, that the Sioux Falls Argus Leader will shut down its printing plant in December and consolidate those operations with other newspapers in Des Moines, Iowa, a move that could eventually be followed by the sale of the entire Argus building, well that’s tough to grasp emotionally for a former staffer and a person who has read the paper since he was a kid.

One of the things I loved when I worked in the newsroom was walking back to the printing plant part of the building to stand at the top of a metal stairway down to where the press operators were working.

The rumble and roar were the sound of the news being printed

I’d just stand there and watch. And I never stopped marveling at the process or feeling proud that I have given them something to print.

When the press got going, you could hear and even feel it throughout much of the building. That rumble and roar was the sound of the news, fresh and essential, on its way to delivery trucks that would take it out into the early morning darkness on to newsstands and quick shops and front steps across the region.

I can’t imagine that building without the presses. Without the sounds and sights. Without the smell of newsprint and ink.

Neither can I imagine driving past the corner of 10th and Minnesota near downtown Sioux Falls and seeing the old Argus Leader building renamed and repurposed. For something other than news. What a strange, sad transformation that will be.

If that happens, the news and advertising folks will end up in some other, smaller, less-pronounced space somewhere in Sioux Falls, just as the Mitchell Daily Republic staff did after the wonderful old brick Daily Republic Building near the downtown area was sold.

Next to a shoe shop, maybe, or in the same building as an insurance agency.

Strange.

Like those in Mitchell, the professional newshounds for the Argus will still be bird-dogging news and pestering government officials for the facts, the truth. But they’ll do it from smaller headquarters and maybe in some instances from their homes.

The future is now in that respect. And while it’s reality, it’s a sad reality. And, for old-timers like me, a bit of a scary reality, with the lingering question of what it means for our democracy, for our democratic republic, depending on your preference.

I’m not alone in those emotions.

Saying goodbye to an important part of newspaper history

“It’s sad,” says former Argus Leader staff writer and business editor Brenda Wade Schmidt, a Britton native who worked at the paper for 32 years. “It’s goodbye to something that was so important and good in a landmark building on Minnesota Avenue. I wish them the best.”

Former staffers all wish them the best. They include Chuck Raasch, a Castlewood farm kid who worked as a reporter and editor at the Argus in the late 1970s and early 1980s before moving on to USA Today and Gannett News Service in Washington D.C. Raasch said the news of the print-plant closure makes him sad and worried about the future of news coverage in South Dakota.

“It just saddens me to see this happen to a newspaper that has done a lot of great things through the years, one that gave me a big break in the business — at $160 a week,” Raasch wrote on Facebook. “I thought I was on top of the world getting paid for asking questions on behalf of citizens that needed to be asked.”

Raasch said in a Facebook message exchange we had that it’s important to remember that the Argus news staff is still doing important news work. That includes day-to-day reporting but also challenging — sometimes in court — government officials over open records in government.

“I want to stress that the Argus still fights on and in many ways that could make it an even more vibrant member of the civic square,” he wrote. ““I think what this signifies is a chapter in a story we thought we’d never see — the sharp decline of local news, due in part to the industry’s inability to adapt a new business model to the internet world,”

But that’s not on the news staff, and never has been. And Raasch said it’s crucial for people to support that staff financially to sustain reporting that holds government officials accountable, which is especially important in a state dominated by one party.

Former Argus staff writer Steve Young, a Huron native who worked at the paper for 35 years, noted that while some colleagues came from other states, many were from “Reliance and Conde, Pierre and Watertown, Sioux Falls and Salem, Huron and Britton and more.”

Young said it’s easy to say “it’s just a building,” but it was home to the Argus Leader for about half of the paper’s 134-year existence in Sioux Falls. So it means more than just bricks and mortar and steel and wood. It has been the home of watchdog journalism for decades that has held politicians accountable, “bird-dogged the actions of government when few others would” and provided a “mirror to the joys and sorrows of life in this great state…”

Earning respect through solid reporting

And it isn’t just former Argus staffers who lament the latest development at the Argus. One of my former colleagues at the Rapid City Journal, Castlewood native Steve Miller, is also deeply troubled by it.

“This is really shocking and sad,” Miller said by email. “Of course, growing up in Castlewood, we read the Argus and the Public Opinion in Watertown. I interned at the Argus in the summer of 1966, prior to my junior year at State. And I learned a lot.

“I remember the rumble of the press,” Miller said. “Mostly I remember how much the Argus was respected. This is so sad.”

The respect the Argus enjoyed was earned by solid, aggressive reporting.

Young pointed out that in 1989, Gov. George Mickelson was asked how he learned there was a problem with prison employees exchanging marijuana with inmates to get hacksaw blades in return, Mickelson said it was because the Argus was investigating such reports.

Young also noted a major story in the mid-1980s when a religious cult in Sioux Falls departed for Florida “to await the end of time” but left behind graves with the remains of children who had died, apparently after adults failed to take them in for needed medical treatment.

“The Argus Leader’s coverage of it motivated the state Legislature to change its religion-shield laws,” Young wrote.

Noting there are many other examples of that kind of essential news work, Young said he has no doubt that Argus reporters and editors will continue that aggressive, necessary journalism with the current generation of staffers.

But to remain vibrant and relevant, the Argus will need support from people who believe in the value of professional journalism.

“And they need it now, before more than just a for sale sign goes up on the building at 10th and Minnesota,” Young wrote.

As Young points out, a building is just a building. It’s people that make a news operation, wherever they are located. And those people need to get paid. And they need resources to pursue the news.

That takes real financial support, from a citizenry that understands that real news requires real news professionals. And that’s worth paying for, perhaps now more than ever.